If you don’t already, you need Simon Pegg in your life. The British comic actor has slowly wormed his way into the public consciousness over the past few years, first with the excellent and surreal TV comedy Spaced (an extras-packed R1 DVD was recently released), followed up with decent spoof-y Britcoms Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.
With a growing cult following in the US, Pegg is clearly aiming for stardom, and thus has to do what every British actor must do to make it in the States: star in a slew of mediocre rom-coms or predictable thrillers. He has had a bit part with Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 3, and lead roles in the watchable Big Nothing and somewhat less watchable Run, Fatboy, Run.
Of those three films, Pegg is easily the best thing in it, and he does it again here. In this adaptation of Toby Young’s memoir of the same name, Pegg shines in a sea of relative mediocrity, his subtle comedic sensibilities lending the film an enjoyable, naturalistic level of humour. He makes an otherwise average movie watchable by playing an entertaining loser, an perennial idiot with the social skills of a gorilla. In less capable hands it could fall flat, but Pegg makes Sidney a largely likeable buffoon.
And perhaps that’s the problem – in the source text, our hero is an intensely unlikeable, if absurdly amusing, idiot. But, as the real life Young has acknowledged in an interview with the actor, Simon Pegg has an extremely likeable screen presence. And so there’s sort conflict-of-likeabilty created in the book’s journey to the big screen. Director Robert Weide, who made his name in the improvisational genius of Curb Your Enthusiasm, gives us an opening hour of faintly enjoyable slapstick, but ultimately opts for paint-by-numbers romantic comedy in the closing act. There are some surprisingly predictable cliches at play here: the asshole romantic rival, Pegg’s ‘crossroads’ moment in the pouring rain at the end of the second act, and of course the final, inescapable dash to the airport – a romcom staple.
The film’s strongest moments are when it stays faithful to the book. It touches lightly on the archaic hierarchy at play in the media elite, and there are plenty of opportunities for laughs from the source. One memorable scene, based on one of Young’s real life stunts, involves Bring Your Daughter to Work Day and a transsexual stripper – complete with a close-up shot of the penis, which Pegg helpfully conceals.
But arguably the strongest aspects of the books have been stripped away. Gone are the book’s sharp observations on the superficiality of the New York social scene, gone are the notes on NYC dating, which brilliantly read like Sex and the City for cynical, sexist British men. And most notably, gone are the excess of Young’s failures. The book is a chronicle of an almost consecutive run of personal disasters, culminating in Young leaving New York, unemployed. Admittedly, if it was a truly faithful adaptation, as the Onion’s AV Club observed, “it’d be called A Catalogue Of Fuck-Ups, and be banned from every theater”. But in its ‘heavily fictionalized’ form, How To Lose Friends feels trite and diluted, opting for broad, unsophisticated and rather unsatisfying comedy.
It’s a bit of a shame, because there’s a wealth of talent on offer here. Weide can and has done better with his superb, understated work on Curb, and he has assembled a solid supporting cast, including Kirsten Dunst, Megan Fox (playing almost a parody of herself), Gillian Anderson and the quality guaranteed Jeff Bridges. And Pegg ties them together well, proving again he is of leading man substance, in acting skills if not movie-star looks.
Ultimately, How to Lose Friends is a disappointment. It’s by no means terrible but with a strong source and an abundance of ability on board it could have easily have been better. It will do no harm to Simon Pegg’s career though, and by the time the new Star Trek movie comes out next year, where he will be playing Scotty, there’s no reason why he won’t be a fully fledged superstar, and films such as this will only be remembered as ‘Simon Pegg career furtherance vehicle’.